Garbiñe Muguruza is back to the form that took her to World No 1 in September 2017, demonstrating her skills in the Akron WTA Finals with a 6-3 6-3 win over compatriot Paula Badosa to reach the finale where she will play Anett Kontaveit, who got past Maria Sakkari, 6-1 3-6 6-3, in her semi-final on Tuesday night in Guadalajara, Mexico.
I don't feel like a favourite, maybe on paper or for the TV, but I don't feel like it. I started here losing and I thought that I could be eliminated, so for me to say that I feel like a favourite for the final is complicated. Garbiñe Muguruza
“I think it’s the best match that I played so far here in Guadalajara,” said Muguruza, after her win. “It was a tough match facing another Spaniard in the semi-finals.
“We’ve never faced each other before, so it was tricky. But I’m very happy that I got the win. Very proud of Paula.
“She started the year far in the rankings, and now she’s a Top 10 player. Very impressive. She deserves a very well rest. Very happy for her year.”
Muguruza, who has climbed back up the rankings to No 5, dominated her fellow Spaniard in their first career meeting, using her superior firepower to force Badosa onto the back foot from the get-go, and breaking her for a second time with a forehand winner to take the opening set.
It was a commanding display by the 28-year-old, who used her immaculate timing to great effect and was never broken, saving all 3 break points that she faced, and winning 81 percent of points when she got her first serve into play.
She also took charge when returning Badosa’s second serve, winning 64 percent of those points and grabbing 3 service breaks in the 1 hour 25 minute encounter.
Muguruza took early control of the second set, as she had done with the first, breaking for 2-0 after chasing down a drop-shot and forcing Badosa into an error with a backhand.
Things became trickier, though, when Badosa produced her only break points of the match in the next game, but Muguruza stayed steady and fended off all 3 to go up 3-0.
Badosa swept away 4 more break points to hold for 4-2 and stayed within touching distance, but Muguruza remained solid on her serve and reached her first match point at 5-3 with an unreturned one.
When Badosa fluffed the ball into the net, Muguruza moved into her 5th singles final of the season and waited for the result of the night semi-final between Estonia’s Kontaveit and Greece’s Sakkari.
Muguruza engineered 11 breakpoint opportunities for herself, taking 3 of them, and won almost two-thirds of Badosa’s second-serve points, a statistic that displays her dominance in the return game.
The Spaniard, who now has a 13-2 record in Mexico, where she won back-to-back titles in Monterrey in 2018 and 2019, opened her WTA Finals campaign with a narrow loss to 3rd-seeded Karolina Pliskova but bounced back with victories over 2nd-seeded Barbora Krejcikova, Kontaveit and Badosa.
“Every time I came here to Mexico, I always feel very welcome, very happy,” she said. “The environment just clicks with me.
“Having a [WTA Finals in Mexico] played this year, it was like, ‘Okay, Garbiñe, this is your opportunity. You got to give it all, no matter if you win or lose. You have to get out of here and feel like, man, I gave all my energy.’ I think I’m doing that.”
As for Badosa, she has enjoyed a breakthrough year and will finish the season at a career-best World No 8.
“Today was a tough day,” said Badosa, who earlier in the week said that Muguruza had been her tennis inspiration. “I didn’t feel myself and she played good, all the credits go to her.
“I didn’t play the match that I was expecting. I don’t really know what happened today. I’m sad that I could not compete.
“It was very new for me, all these situations, being in these rounds, playing in front of a lot of people.
“Everything was really big at the beginning of the season, having these results. I think now I quite feel it’s more normal and I’m getting used to it.
“I think that will help me for next year as well if I want to do big things.”
Muguruza notched her 6th Top 10 win of the season and her 41st Top 10 win overall with her victory over Badosa, the newest member of the Top 10, and she has now won 41 matches this season, her highest total since 2017, when she finished the year 45-18.
Having lost in the semi-finals in 2015, Muguruza is the first Spanish woman to reach the singles final since 1993, when Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario was runner-up to Steffi Graff.
Later, under the lights, it was Kontaveit who took down Sakkari, the 4th seed, in 3 sets to reach the championship match at the Akron WTA Finals Guadalajara.
The Estonian resumed her blistering form on Tuesday night, blasting 32 winners, 15 more than her opponent, and has now won 29 of her last 32 matches.
“I still can’t quite believe that I’m even here and I’m playing against the best players at such a prestigious tournament,” Kontaveit said. “I’m just so proud of myself that I managed to do this, and so happy to be competing at this level, and just trying to take it all in.”
Her win over Sakkari is her tour-leading 39th hardcourt win of the season and she now ties Tunisia’s Ons Jabeur for the most wins this year, posting a 48-16 record, while the loss drops Sakkari to 1-7 in semi-finals in 2021.
Coming into Tuesday night’s match, Kontaveit had been broken just twice over 3 matches, both by Muguruza in their final round robin match, as she won 92.9% of her service games.
She again powered through these on Tuesday without facing a break point, while breaking Sakkari twice to take the first set in just 27 minutes with the loss of just one game under the lights in the high-altitude Mexican city..
After a gritty hold to start the second, saving 2 break points with clean forehand winners, Sakkari stayed level but she could not make inroads on the Kontaveit serve.
Under pressure again on serve at 3-3, Sakkari saved a break point to come through a 5-deuce game to hold for 4-3, and finally conjured up her first break point after 70 minutes of play to take the Kontaveit serve before converting her 4th set point to force them into their first deciding set in 12 meetings.
Sakkari struck first in the third, breaking Kontaveit to lead 3-2, but the Estonian broke right back to love, which began a run of 8 consecutive points to propel her into the lead at 4-3.
“I think the turning point in the third set, maybe, when I went a break down, 3-2, just managed to tell myself that if this is the last match of the season, then I might as well enjoy it,” Kontaveit said. “I feel like I got some freedom from that, and just started playing better and managed to turn that set around.”
Serving at 4-3, Sakkari built a quick 40-0 lead before Kontaveit pegged her back into another protracted deuce game in which the Greek had many chances to close it out, but the Estonian stayed firm, finally earning her only break point of the game, after saving 8 game points, to break for 5-3.
“Serving on the game, I just saw the finish line,” Sakkari admitted later. “Things went downhill.”
Kontaveit closed out the win with a hold, sealing her spot in the biggest final of her career after 2 hours 2 minutes.
She is now a perfect 7-0 in semi-finals this year and finds herself on the verge of a 3rd consecutive title, and 5th overall, which would tie her with World No 1 Ash Barty for the most of this season.
Currently ranked No 8, Kontaveit can finish the season at No 6 if she wins the Billie Jean King Trophy on Wednesday.
“I’m very excited to reach the finals,” she said. “I was already so proud to make it to this tournament.
“The last few months have really showed me that I can play really well and beat great players consistently and to have self-belief.
“When I came here, I had nothing to lose, but then I started to win, and felt like I can win.
“I think I sort of have this self-belief now. When I came here, of course, I had nothing to lose. Every time I step on the court, I still think I can win the match, just do well.”
Meanwhile, Sakkari, who emerged the victor of a draining match the night before against top seed Aryna Sabalenka, now has a 3-14 record in semi-final matches, winning only 1 out of 8 this year.
“It’s just very tough for me to talk about all this,” Sakkari said. “Today, I have to say, was a missed opportunity.
“Today I was just very close on taking that chance. I just wasted it. That’s why it hurts so much. It’s not that it was just bad luck, it’s that I threw away another chance. It hurts.
“Obviously there’s a lot of respect from my side to Anett’s game. I think, today, I was just very close to taking that chance. I just wasted it.”
Two-time Grand Slam champion Muguruza is making her 4th appearance at the season-ending finals and her first in the championship match, while the Kontaveit will be playing in the biggest match of her career on Wednesday.
It is a rematch of the final round-robin encounter in the Teotihuacán Group, which the Spaniard won 6-4 6-4 to snap the Estonian’s 12-match winning streak, while Muguruza leads their head-to-head record, 3-2.
“I don’t feel like a favourite, maybe on paper or for the TV, but I don’t feel like it,” Muguruza said. “I started here losing and I thought that I could be eliminated, so for me to say that I feel like a favourite for the final is complicated.”
This is the first time since 2016 WTA Finals that the finalists have come from the same group when Dominika Cibulkova defeated Angelique Kerber after losing to the German in group play.
The season-ending WTA Finals were not held last year because of the COVID-19 pandemic and were originally scheduled to take place in Shenzhen before being moved to Guadalajara because of pandemic-related travel restrictions in China.